And so it was that on the fifth day of the Lord’s Test, and then in the days that followed, much of England experienced a strange and virulent fever. The contagion’s symptoms included hypocrisy, Olympian whining, an ignorance of cricket’s laws and an almost hallucinatory rage.
With the second Test poised dramatically as England threatened to catch an improbable target, Australia’s quick-witted wicketkeeper, Alex Carey, unleashed the virus. Carey had noted how England’s Jonny Bairstow strolled from his crease with the casualness of a man ambling around the Lake District, and was prepared. Having taken the ball metres behind the wicket – Bairstow had ducked another short delivery – in one fluid motion Carey immediately underarmed the ball back towards the stumps as Bairstow again obliviously left his crease. Without looking behind him, without the umpire having called the end of the over, the Yorkshireman had silently and unilaterally declared the ball dead, the over complete. It was not and he was ruled out.
It was cheeky, certainly, but the crowd’s verdict was that it was shameful, obnoxious, an odious breach of the “spirit of cricket”. The goddamn convicts were cheating again. Unusually for Lord’s, the crowd swelled in a passionate chorus of booing, which continued tirelessly for the rest of play, sometimes alternating with the chant “Same old Aussies, always cheating”. Commentators kept wondering aloud if they’d ever witnessed a Lord’s mob so gripped by passion.
One famous feature of the Lord’s ground, where resides the Marylebone Cricket Club – authors of the game’s laws and the smugly patrician custodians of its “spirit” – is the Long Room, where the aristocratic MCC members, almost all elderly white men in tweed blazers, sip Pimm’s from crystal glasses while tending to cricket’s flame. The unusual thing in this grand room, finished with chandeliers and giant portraits, is the proximity of the members to the players, who walk through the crowd just before entering the ground, or on their way to the change rooms.
It was here, in the Long Room, that these vainly decorous lords, barons and knights suddenly fattened with indignation and roared their disgust at the Aussies as they walked back to their rooms for lunch. The virus had taken hold. There were screams of “Cheats!”, “Sandpaper!” and other, unspecified insults that were sufficiently offensive to the mild-mannered Usman Khawaja that he stopped, turned and confronted a man. He directed a steward to evict him and a few others. After the match, Khawaja said: “Lord’s is one of my favourite places to come. There’s so much respect shown, particularly in the members’ pavilion and in the Long Room, but there wasn’t today. It was very disappointing.”
The MCC was mortified, quickly issued an apology to the Australians and announced that three members had been suspended. But the virus could not be tamed by the MCC’s contrition, nor the consensus among English pundits that the real villain was Jonny Bairstow’s “doziness”. Nor could it be quelled by the fact that, only two days before, Bairstow had attempted an identical stumping.
The indignation was also indifferent to the fact England coach Brendon McCullum, who petulantly ruled out post-series beers with the Aussies, had once run out Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan as he strolled from his crease to congratulate his batting partner on scoring a century. “It’s a legitimate form of dismissal and has been as long as I’ve known the game of cricket,” former Australian captain Mark Taylor wrote in The Age. “I’ve seen many wicketkeepers throwing the ball towards the stumps to try and claim an unsuspecting batsman’s wicket.”
But the virus could not be inoculated against with reason or history – a wicked symptom of the illness was the destruction of memory beyond the events of that morning. Then things escalated. The British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said the Aussies had contravened the “spirit” of the game; our prime minister, Anthony Albanese, expressed pride in the team. The greasy bloviator Piers Morgan, who once edited several tabloids that were defined by their enthusiastic devotion to sleaze, accused the Aussies of riding a “bulldozer” through the ethics of cricket.
I feel sorry, though, for England captain Ben Stokes. On that exhilarating last day, he played one of the most exciting innings I’ve seen, imperiously dashing off 155 runs from 214 balls and flirting seriously with the impossible. It was a privilege to watch but has been eclipsed by rancour and hypocrisy.
That final day was a reminder of the great joy of sport, its excitement and grand theatre, and I confess I was willing Stokes to make history. Watching England is fun, but you wouldn’t know it from most of the sport’s pundits who are simultaneously stupid and absurdly solemn.
Listening to the former England player Kevin Pietersen commentate, for example, is like watching a man wrestling the kraken. He’s so dim, self-absorbed and inarticulate that he must find refuge in verbose, burbling streams of clichés – while occasionally flicking the Howard Beale switch to generate a few headlines. After the first day, England were “shambolic” and “too nice”. “Are you joking?” he raged to himself, to his colleagues, to all of England. “Are you absolutely joking? I just hope they’re in that dressing room now and the England coach is giving them the biggest hammering and saying, ‘It’s not good enough, it’s absolutely not good enough!’ ” I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!
Cool your jets, KP. You too, Rishi and Piers. I mean, does anyone even enjoy sport anymore? Or is it just an excuse for whingeing, headline-making and the laundering of political grievances? And weren’t we just fretting about Test cricket’s very existence? Aren’t we always fretting about Test cricket’s existence? If this form of the game is existentially threatened, then shouldn’t we be grateful for England’s joyous, impulsive, hyper-aggressive, often charming, occasionally self-harming style?
One of England’s most successful captains, Mike Brearley, has worked as a psychoanalyst for the past 40 years. Brearley – who knew a bit about fan passion himself, once telling me he’d been “pushed into a bed of roses by an irate Middlesex supporter in Derbyshire” – was asked recently by The Guardian what he thought of the current England squad and its aggressive style, made in the image of Stokes and McCullum. “I have a theory based on the crisis New Zealand cricket had in 2013,” Brearley said. “New Zealand were bowled out for 45 and McCullum [as captain] said he and his team had lost their love of the game. He wanted them to go back to their childhood and ask: ‘Why did you play cricket in the first place? Because you loved it.’ Once you embraced that you relaxed, enjoyed it and looked at opportunities rather than risks. I think it was his way of overcoming his own depression.”
It’s lovely to think that, in the second Test, we were watching Stokes inhabit the soul of his nine-year-old self so that he might slog uninhibitedly, while his batting partner Bairstow had strolled innocently from his crease to help shepherd a distractingly cute ladybird from the pitch – not unlike he had done on the first morning of the Test, when he seized a trespassing climate protester like a sack of turnips and carried him from the field.
Had Bairstow not been stumped, I fully expected him to wander over to gully to show the fielder his stamp album, or to instruct him on how to scorch grass with a magnifying glass. McCullum’s men are gloriously possessed of childlike enthusiasm, and we should bless their scraped elbows and grass-stained knees for breathing new life into the game. Especially since we’re beating them.
I’m joking, but serious: this has been a thrilling Test series so far. And competitive. Embrace it. Instead, the game is barnacled by culture warriors, grumpy reactionaries and media opportunists. It was only a few months ago that sour, boorish commentators here were grimly listing the sins of the Aussie team that is now W, D, W, W, W in its previous five Test matches – all of them played away from home and against the world’s first- and third-ranked teams.
Which brings me to my final thought: for a team recently alleged to have been catastrophically weakened by moral vanity and emotional frailty, they were bloody ruthless – both in the cheeky stumping of Bairstow and the battery of chin-music shown to tailenders. Never have I seen a physio shuttle so frequently out to the centre to inspect jawlines and administer concussion tests.
Ruthless and tough. After blackening his eye in a fielding mishap, Cummins scarcely missed an over, while Nathan Lyon, having suffered a severe, series-ending muscle tear in his calf, hobbled out to the centre using his bat as a crutch. England might be swashbuckling mavericks but the Aussies were grizzled, patch-eyed bandits.
Two-nil Australia, and the first Ashes victory in England since 2001 beckons.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 6, 2023 as "Lord’s name taken in vain".
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